Monday, February 26, 2007

Editorial: Riverfront group needs scrutiny

Commercial Appeal [Link]
February 26, 2007

When Memphis mayor Willie Herenton floated the idea of turning management of the city's riverfront over to a nonprofit group, his pitch was simple.

The Riverfront Development Corp., as the nonprofit came to be known, was supposed to be able to handle the oversight work more efficiently than city government could.

But has the RDC fulfilled that promise? About seven years after the agency was founded, it's a question worth evaluating.

We know this much: The RDC has been very good for some former city employees.

As Jacinthia Jones reported in a story last week, the three highest paid employees on the RDC's payroll are all former city division directors. They're collecting pensions from the city while continuing to work for the agency, which, in turn, gets most of its funding from city government.

Benny Lendermon, who's been running the RDC since its founding in 2000, makes $198,290 a year, plus a $4,800 auto allowance and other benefits. That's more than Herenton's $160,000 annual salary and it's roughly double the $99,800 Lendermon made as the city's public works director. John Conroy, a former city engineer, makes $126,052 a year and Danny Lemmons, a former general services director, makes $98,437.

And that's only counting what they're earning now at the RDC. Their annual pensions range from Conroy's $36,204 to Lendermon's $61,116.

If the RDC had to operate like most nonprofits do -- begging and scraping for funding from private contributors -- then that wouldn't be a cause for public concern.

But the RDC isn't that kind of nonprofit. Under the terms of its contract, the RDC gets $2 million annually to manage riverfront parks, plus revenue generated from concerts, Mud Island museum admissions and park rental fees on city-owned property.

The RDC gets about $250,000 from private sources like the Plough Foundation, but Lendermon admitted that without the city funding, "we'd go away." So really, whether Lendermon or his charges care to admit it or not, the RDC is just like an arm of city government.

That doesn't mean it always acts like one.

During the RDC's short history, some City Council members have complained that the agency hasn't provided enough information about its planned expenditures during annual budget hearings. And some riverfront activists have complained that the RDC doesn't open up its meetings and records the way a public agency should.

With the RDC poised to tackle its largest project ever, the $27 million Beale Street Landing, now would seem like an opportune time for council members to evaluate whether RDC's claims of operating the parks more efficiently ring true.

There's a joke around Memphis City Hall that RDC stands for "Retired Directors Club." But if taxpayers are subsidizing an inflated payroll for bureaucrats who are providing essentially the same level of service with less accountability to the public, then RDC could well stand for something else: Really Dumb Concept.

See also:

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Branston: The Rest of the Story on the RDC

Memphis Flyer [link]
February 22, 2007
By John Branston

Better late than never.

Following up on its strong series of stories about sweet deals in city government and at MLGW, The Commercial Appeal finally turned its attention Thursday to city government’s kissing cousin, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and its staff of three former city division directors.

As The Flyer has been reporting for four years, the RDC, or "retired directors club" as some city council members call the quasi-government nonprofit, enjoys an enviable package of salaries and benefits for managing a small slice of the city – the riverfront parks – as opposed to an entire city division. RDC President Benny Lendermon, formerly city public works director, earns over $260,000 a year in salary, pension, and other benefits. The other two retired directors on the RDC staff are Danny Lemmons, formerly of general services, and John Conroy, former city engineer.

"The area’s biggest megaphone," as CA columnist Wendi Thomas called her employer in her column Thursday, skated over or confused some key RDC issues in addition to doing some good work.

There was no mention of Friends for Our Riverfront, another nonprofit that operates on a shoestring budget and has fought the RDC to a standstill on the public promenade and done at least as much to promote user-friendly amenities along the river and parks in general. Two weeks ago the RDC and Friends, along with other groups, each brought well-known speakers to Memphis on different days to plug “green” issues. Virginia McLean, head of the Friends volunteers, has no ties to city government and gets no subsidy as the RDC does.

The CA story quoted Lendermon and city council members Scott McCormick and Tom Marshall who touted the efficiencies and accomplishments of the RDC and pooh-poohed the gibes about the "retired directors club." Strange then, that the city council, chaired by Marshall, is making such a fuss about former mayoral aide Gail Jones Carson over at MLGW and her $126,000 salary and her pension.

McCormick is quoted saying the RDC does a better job of managing the parks than the Memphis Park Commission did. What the story did not say, however, is that such a comparison is difficult if not unfair. The parks division, as it is now called, is responsible for roughly 180 parks spread over some 300 square miles of Memphis. The RDC gets to concentrate on 10 parks along two miles of the riverfront.

McCormick told the Flyer this week he is satisfied that the RDC really is doing the job for less and baselined its budget against pre-RDC years. "They said they would operate and maintain the parks for $2 million in 2001," he said. "They have operated the parks for five years for the same amount. Where in government does somebody maintain the same costs for five years? I thought that was outstanding."

John Malmo, former chairman of the board of the old Memphis Park Commission, told the Flyer last year that he thinks such comparisons play fast and loose with the facts. Isolating the cost of running riverfront parks from the rest of the city is like trying to isolate the cost of running one room of your house or raising one of your children. Obviously, there are a lot of shared costs and overhead.

The CA story says there are new cobblestones on the riverfront. If so, they’re not the huge ones that many Memphians remember. The broad area at the end of Union Avenue and west of Riverside Drive where the tour boats dock is a patchwork of loose gravel and small cobblestones, with a few massive chain links that are a reminder of the city’s cotton and riverboat days. But "the cobblestones" are in no condition to qualify as a tourist attraction, and, after six RDC years, there are no markers calling attention to them or explaining their significance. To call this an accomplishment of the RDC is a stretch.

With plans to enclose the harbor scrapped two years ago, the RDC’s current big project is Beale Street Landing, a $27 million park and boat landing at the foot of Beale Street and Tom Lee Park. Friends for Our Riverfront and others have argued that modest user-friendly improvements could be made at the park for a fraction of that price.

The CA puts no heat on the RDC board, which includes a host of downtown and Memphis luminaries. Once again, Friends for Our Riverfront does the heavy lifting when it comes to accountability by attending RDC meetings and circulating their notes and minutes via their website.

The quality of the RDC’s work on Mud Island and along the riverfront speaks for itself. The parks, bluff, and Riverside Drive, in the opinion of this 25-year downtown worker and fan, have never looked better. There may indeed be big efficiencies at the RDC versus the public sector. In that case, the agency would be best served by embracing complete financial transparency, explaining its magic formula without fear or favor, joining forces with Friends for Our Riverfront when practical, and expanding its expertise and thrifty business model to other parts of Memphis on a scale commensurate with those salaries.

CA: RDC attracts ex-city officials

'Retired Directors Club' provides lucrative jobs
Commercial Appeal [link]
By Jacinthia Jones
February 22, 2007

The joke at City Hall goes like this: The Memphis Riverfront Development Corp. is where city department heads go to retire.

The RDC's three highest paid employees are retired division directors for the city of Memphis who now draw city pensions while earning sizeable salaries at the nonprofit created in 2000 at the city's behest to oversee downtown parkland.

Under contract with the city, the RDC manages Mud Island River Park, Tom Lee Park and nine other parks for $2.2 million annually, down from the the $2.6 million it received annually during its first five-year contract.

Former city public works director Benny Lendermon has been at the helm of the organization since its inception, a group born from the recommendation of a city-appointed steering committee charged with finding a way to better market and utilize the riverfront.

As president, Lendermon, 54, earns $198,290 plus a $4,800 auto allowance and other benefits, according to RDC.

That's more than Mayor Willie Herenton's $160,000 salary and its nearly double the $99,800 Lendermon earned as Memphis public works director.

He retired in 2000 after 24 years of service and went to work for RDC. On top of his salary, Lendermon collects his monthly city pension of $5,093.

Danny Lemmons, the retired general services director for the city, earns $98,437 as director of operations for RDC.

Lemmons, 64, retired from the city in 1992 with more than 20 years of service. His monthly pension is $3,580.

And John Conroy, 63, the city's former engineer, makes $126,052 in his post as RDC's vice president of project development. Conroy's monthly city pension is $3,017.

He retired from Memphis government in 2002 with 13 years and nine months of service under the city's controversial 12-year pension rule for appointed and elected officials that has since been rescinded.

Connections to City Hall extend beyond the three former directors. The RDC's director of communications, Dorchelle Spence, is the wife of former city attorney Robert Spence. She earns $98,437.

"We've heard the jokes," said Lendermon, but shrugs it off.

Instead, he ticks off RDC's accomplishments: new cobblestones on the riverfront, new steps down the bluffs, medians along Riverside Drive, not to mention sprucing up Mud Island and other parks that had begun to languish under the city's watch.

"All of our projects have come within budget, with no overruns." That's been possible, he says, because the nonprofit isn't tied down by government red tape.

The group is now preparing to tackle its largest project yet, overseeing the city's $27 million Beale Street Landing.

Still, the RDC, though separate from the city, is almost wholly supported by the local government.

"We get the majority of our money from the city, there's no doubt," Lendermon said, adding that if the city ever canceled the contract, "We'd go away."

Besides the $2 million the agency receives from the city annually to manage the parks, the nonprofit gets about $250,000 from private sources like the Plough Foundation, Lendermon said. Its concert series at the amphitheater brought in $50,000 this past season, in addition to other revenue from Mud Island museum admissions and park rental fees.

When Lendermon began to assemble his team at the RDC, he turned to those he knew. He worked with Lemmons at the city and said he knew his work ethic.

When Lemmons joined RDC, he'd been retired from the city for more than 10 years. Lendermon said he had to persuade him to take a pay cut, leave his job in industrial development at the railroad, and join him at the nonprofit.

Similarly, with Conroy, Lendermon said he approached the then-city engineer looking for names of prospects. Lendermon interviewed three who didn't make the cut, before later hiring Conroy for much less.

Memphis City Council Chairman Tom Marshall has heard the RDC jokes as well. One is that RDC stands for "Retired Directors Club."

"Honestly, it just doesn't bother me. Many of us have even laughed about it," he said, dismissing the situation as "water cooler discussion."

Marshall says the council this year may have to address the "brain drain" leaving City Hall to work at city agencies. Otherwise, Marshall says he's happy to have qualified individuals at the RDC who "have a pulse on how things work in the city system."

Councilman Scott McCormick, chairman of the council's park committee and the latest addition to the RDC board, believes the RDC has performed admirably. "They do a much better job of managing the parks than we did."

More info:

Top jobs at RDC
Three retired city of Memphis executives now work for the Riverfront Development Corp., a nonprofit that manages downtown parkland under contract with the city.

Benny Lendermon, 54
Pension: $5,093/month
RDC pay: $198,290/year

Danny Lemmons, 64
Pension: $3,580/month
RDC pay: $98,437/year

John Conroy, 63
Pension: $3,017/month
RDC pay: $126,052

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Board Meeting

Here are the minutes from the RDC Board Meeting of February 14, 2007.

Click here for a scanned, PDF version [728 KB]. Click the complete article link below to read the text in HTML.


Riverfront Development Corporation
Board Minutes
February 14, 2007


The meeting of the Board of Directors of the Riverfront Development Corporation was held on February 14, 2007 at the offices of the Corporation, Falls Building, 22 N. Front Street, Memphis, TN.

Directors Attending: Rick Masson, Pete Aviotti, John Bobango, Charles Carpenter, Kemp Conrad, Greg Duckett, Lucia Gilliland, Tomeka Hart, Derrick Joyce, Kevin Kane, Scott McCormick, Angus McEachran, Keith McGee, Mary Lynn Perl, John Pontius, Jeff Sanford, Bill Taylor, Tom Volinchak, and Burnetta Williams (by phone).

Directors Absent: Rob Carter, John Farris, Sara Hall, James Holt, William Hudson, Barbara Hyde, Pat Kerr- Tigrett, Robert Lipscomb, Terry Lynch, Lecia Martin, John Pontius, John Stokes, Dan Turley, and Jerry West.

Others Attending: Benny Lendermon, John Conroy, Jay Fuller, Dorchelle Spence, Brenda Adair, Sue Williams, Tom Charlier, and Andy Ashby.

Call to Order: Chairman Masson called the meeting to order at 8:45 a.m. He welcomed two new board members, Mr. Scott McCormick, City Council representative, and Tom Volinchak the new Downtown Neighborhood Association president, and Mr. Masson also extended a welcome to Sue Williams, Friends for Our Riverfront representative.

Roll Call: The Secretary called the roll. A quorum was established.

Approval of Board Minutes: Mr. Masson asked for approval of the minutes of the September 22, 2006 and November 15, 2006 board meetings. Mr. Aviotti's motion that the minutes be approved, was seconded by Derrick Joyce and unanimously approved by the Directors present.

Treasurer's Report: Bill Taylor reported to the board at the last meeting a drop in RDC's parks management contract fees of more than $480,000 for the fiscal year, our approved budget is a breakeven budget that could be upset by unusual changes in revenue or expenses. He reported that the first quarter budget showed a slight deficit of $(40,381), and that RDC was expected to recover during the year.

At the end of the second quarter (December, 2006), Mr. Taylor was pleased to report that RDC has turned this deficit into a slight surplus of $7,393. Revenue is still down substantially from projections due to disappointing concert revenues, but this deficit is offset by under budget expenses in employee compensation and the total of other administrative expenses. Bill Taylor's motion to accept the Finance committee report was seconded by Derrick Joyce and unanimously approved by the Directors present.

Bylaws Committee Report: John Bobango, Chair of the Bylaws Committee and committee members, Tomeka Hart, Charles Carpenter, and Pete A viotti met to review the RDC bylaws several weeks ago. The committee recommends that two sections of the bylaws be revised as outlined below.

REVISION I: The following sentence would be added at the end of paragraph 6 under Article Five, Section 2
.The terms of ex-officio members shall not count as a term of service as to those limited service terms or periods referred to in these By-Laws.
REVISION II: The second sentence in paragraph 7 under Article Five, Section 2 (the second full paragraph on page 4) currently reads: A former member of the Board, who has served two threeyear terms, may be re-elected to the Board after he or she has not served as Director for a period of at least one term (three years). This sentence will be replaced with the following:
A former member of the Board, who has served two three-year terms, may be re-elected to the Board after he or she has not served as a regular Director for a period of at least one year.

Mr. Bobango's motion to adopt the two amendments as presented effective on the date of approval was seconded by Mr. Taylor and unanimously approved by the Directors present.

It was suggested that provisions should be included in the bylaws for phone conference meetings of the board in the event of time sensitive issues to be addressed by the board. Chairman Masson asked the Nominating Committee take this under advisement.

President's Report: Mr. Lendermon gave an update on the Beale Street Landing project. The next major phase of construction is building the sheet pile wall for the site. The project design is complete, funding is in place and is ready for the bid process. After we receive approval from the Tennessee Department of Transportation the bidding process will take place.

Mr. Lendermon updated the board on the Grand Carousel. Several months ago, the Memphis City Council passed a resolution recommending the relocation of the Grand Carousel to the Mud Island River Park. In the resolution, the City Council requested a formal presentation from RDC of a public/private partnership for the restoration and relocation of the carousel. RDC suggested the need for additional security and insurance for the carouse, and organized a visit to the International Museum of Carousel Art in Portland. John Bobango, Scott McCormick, Kemp Conrad, and City Council Chair, Tajuan Stout-Mitchell attended the trip. The Executive Committee created a fundraising committee chaired by John Bobango, and the committee devised a fundraising plan and met with several corporations about funding. However, the City of Memphis began reconsidering the amusement park options which included the clean-up and restoration of the LibertyLand site with the carousel remaining and new operators. At this time, the Executive Committee decided not to move forward with any efforts to raise funds for the renovation and relocation of the carousel until a decision was made by the City administration on the carousel's final location.

RDC continues to recommend to the City that the carousel should be dismantled and properly stored to eliminate any future deterioration and theft concerns. RDC has offered to provide assistance in getting the carousel crated and stored under contract with the City of Memphis.

Dorchelle Spence announced that the Mud Island River Park will open Saturday, April 14th. Staff is planning to have hot-air balloon rides, a live band, bikes, canoes and kayaks for rental, and duck races for the children. The Mud Island River Mississippi Museum will also be open.

Ms. Spence presented new advertising concepts. Advertisements will be printed in the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau publications, Grace Magazine, Memphis Downtowner Magazine, Memphis Redbirds Yearbook, and several others. Ads will also be featured in Guest Link--an inroom hotel distribution. RDC will also introduce a new advertising campaign this year using full page ads with color and unique headlines. Four billboards will also be used to bring attention to the Mud Island River Park and museum. Plans are to rotate the billboards every eight weeks that will be located throughout the city.

In addition, a new towboat pilot house gallery will open in the Mississippi River Museum, and audio tours will be available for the first time ever in the museum allowing visitors to move through the exhibits on their on.

Mr. Lendermon also noted that four of the eight concerts are confirmed for Mud Island River Park this season, and we are in the final steps of executing contracts with several new organizations to help sponsor the concerts.

New Business: Rick Masson announced that the Executive Committee is planning a full board retreat. The retreat will be an all-day session in the summer.

In the absence of John Stokes, Chair of the Nominating Committee, Mr. Masson requested board members to submit names of any potential new board members to be reviewed by the nominating committee.

Mr. Masson also stated that last week RDC along with Outdoors, Inc., the Community Foundation, and several other entities co-sponsored a meeting called ""Greening Greater Memphis" to increase support of the WolfRiver Greenway, a 13-mile walking/biking trail on the CSX right of way, and Shelby Farms. The Speaker was Alex Garvin who was the second featured speaker during RDC's luncheon series.

Adjournment: There being no other business, the meeting was adjourned 9:25 a.m.

Angus McEachran
Assistant Secretary



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